Loss of on-campus voting program leads to fears students won't cast ballots

·3 min read
Students visit an advance polling station set up on a university campus in Toronto, which won't be available this election. (Alvin Yu/CBC - image credit)
Students visit an advance polling station set up on a university campus in Toronto, which won't be available this election. (Alvin Yu/CBC - image credit)

One Ottawa students' group is concerned Elections Canada's cancellation of the Vote on Campus program will create unnecessary barriers for young people who want to cast ballots in the upcoming federal election.

The program debuted for the 2015 election and "proved to work," said Armaan Singh Kheppar, advocacy commissioner for the University of Ottawa Students' Union.

The initiative allowed students to cast a special ballot at polling stations set up on campus — and thus vote in whatever they considered to be their home riding, from anywhere in the country.

It was offered again during the 2019 election and according to Elections Canada, about 110,000 ballots were cast on university campuses across the country.

Singh Kheppar told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning his office had received a "handful" of complaints from students following the news the program would not return for the 2021 campaign.

Its cancellation will make voting a "lot less accessible," said Singh Kheppar, a big concern given Canadians aged 18-34 will make up the largest voting demographic this year.

"Elections Canada's sole mandate is to make voting in our elections as seamless, simple and easy as possible," said Singh Kheppar.

"The absence of the Vote on Campus program is doing just the opposite."

WATCH | Lack of on-campus polling stations causing concern over youth voter turnout:

Pandemic, minority government led to decision

CBC asked for an interview with Elections Canada but was instead sent a lengthy statement.

The statement cited the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertain timelines of a minority government as two reasons for the "difficult decision" last fall to cancel the program.

Both made it hard to recruit election workers and secure space on campus to run the program, wrote Elections Canada spokesperson Diane Benson.

It was also unclear, Benson wrote, whether students would be able to be present on campus if an election was called.

"We know students face unique barriers to voting, and we remain committed to addressing those barriers at every opportunity," wrote Benson.

"We will continue to work closely with students and student organizations to make sure that their voices are heard and their needs are met."

Andrew Lee/CBC
Andrew Lee/CBC

'You make it work'

Elections Canada's rationale doesn't make much sense, according to Ottawa-based political commentator David Moscrop, who says the agency should have had a contingency plan in place,

"It's their job to be ready to go. If they can have polling stations elsewhere, they can have polling stations on campus," Moscrop told Ottawa Morning.

The program's cancellation is particularly concerning, he added, given the sharp disparity in voter turnout among students and older Canadians, who cast ballots in significantly higher numbers.

"[That] means we're getting a Parliament that doesn't represent the true will of the country," Moscrop said. "If you care about that, you make it work."

Students are still able to cast special ballots early through the mail or at any Elections Canada office, but that requires them to be "a little bit more proactive" and understand how the system works, said Singh Kheppar.

"Obviously students can do this, but it requires a lot more work from their end, and obviously makes voting look a lot less attractive — especially for those students who may not be as politically involved," he said.

The deadline for any Canadian, students included, to apply for a special ballot is Sept. 14. Voting day is Sept. 20.

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